snOw-DU: A Contemplative Walk Around Campus

Snow falls in front of Dominion House, Old Dominion University
Snow falls in front of Dominion House, Old Dominion University

First of all, whoever told me a couple months ago that it never snows here, you are a liar. Consider yourself called out.

It snowed yet again here in Norfolk, beginning yesterday afternoon. This morning NAS Oceana reported 8 inches, while the airport reported 5.6. From what I saw, it was probably closer to 6 around here. School was cancelled again, which makes the second Wednesday in a row, which is bad for me as the News Editor of the student newspaper because that means several stories got cancelled, once again. So far it’s been like pulling teeth to find more than 2 stories a week, and get them covered (well), but whatevs. I’m the only person on campus complaining. amiright?

After digging my $3 boots- that I bought at a thrift shop when that song was still cool- out of the car, I hiked around campus snagging pictures and talking to people…

The ice sheet on the water at the end of 48th St. Kids were sledding down the large hill in the background.

(I apologize for the weird tint to the pictures. As/if I edit them I’ll replace them)

Kaufman Mall, Old Dominion University.
January 29, 2013
oranges for eyes, coffee in hand..
Old Dominion University students building snow… mounds?

The main thing I noticed as the snow began to stick yesterday, was the level of work the snow-clearing crews were putting into keeping pathways clear. Even as snow had hours more to fall, and inches left to accumulate, they were out scooping, snow-blowing, and salt-spreading.

The cleared sidewalk next to Whitehurst
The (perfectly) cleared sidewalk next to Whitehurst

Today as I was making the rounds, I stopped and chatted with a few. I’m just going to entirely leave names out because A- I don’t know anything about their contracts, and the last thing I want is to get a anyone fired, and B- I’m terrible with names and only remember a couple anyway… (sorry)

The first thing that struck me, as I observed crew after crew, was the type of person laboring- usually of color, older, small, and female.

Stopping and chatting with the third group, I was made aware that many of these workers were the housecleaning personnel. Not grounds-keeping, not maintenance, not specifically snow-clearing, but housekeeping…

The reason I’m surprised by this isn’t because I expect a certain kind of person to do this work or something, but I feel like exhausting, essentially, little old ladies, to do work that many students do not, and will not appreciate at all, is uh…

kinda fucked up.

A worker clears snow from the sidewalk in front of Dominion POD
A worker clears snow from the sidewalk in front of Dominion POD

I asked one of the women when they had come in, and she said that it was last night, and that they were still going… I’m not sure if that means these were still the same crews going when I walked out of the student center at 9:30pm, or if they had come in afterwards. Regardless, it was 3 in the afternoon when I talked to her…

Prior to being enlightened of the entire situation, I walked up on the first group I came to, which was made up of 3 small, older women clearing off the steps of the one of the buildings. It was almost a totally absurd sight. It just looked impossible that these women could possibly clear what was a huge amount of snow off of these steps. It seemed… futile.

I tried not to be obvious, snapping a couple pictures, and as I walked by said “geez! you guys are making overtime for this, right?”

One of the three paused and smiled, kind of hesitated, and answered something to the effect of “oh yes, honey. you know we are.”

The others kind of nodded.

I walked across the mall field, on a pathway that was completely cleared, which was weird because there were no classes. Almost nobody was even outside, let alone walking through campus…

The second crew i encountered looked completely, doggedly exhausted. They were cleaning off the steps and patio of the education building- which again, seemed pointless as there were no classes, no students, no reason to make it such a high priority.

I was probably one of only a couple people that entered the 9-story BAL Building all day. I snagged a couple pictures from the top floor of the school and surrounding area…

From the 9th floor of the BAL Building, a section of campus
From the 9th floor of the BAL Building, a section of campus

As I was walking back towards the mall, the second crew had made it to the side of the building, and was stopped. Tired eyes watched me- the lone student pedestrian- walk across the spotless, painstakingly-shoveled and brushed pathway. A couple were embraced. It was hard to tell if it was for warmth(none of them wore university-issued jackets) or if they were holding each other up. If there was one crew that HAD worked all night, this was it… And why?

The third crew had just started clearing the front of the next building over. That was where I talked to a couple of the workers who were waiting for the snowblower to clear what it could before they started spreading salt.

A worker clears the sidewalk with a snowblower, Old Dominion University
A worker clears the sidewalk with a snowblower, Old Dominion University

“Why don’t you jump in there and let me take pictures of you?” one of them called, over the snowblower. “Here, you can even have my shovel!”

I laughed, approached the woman, and sparked conversation.

As we watched the man operating the snowblower struggle to push the machine across the packed snow, I asked them if they were getting paid overtime, to which the woman laughed in my face.

The woman next to her explained that they didn’t know, and that essentially they wouldn’t know until they saw their pay checks. Many of them had either not left the day before, or had barely made it in on uncleared or barely-cleared roads. One woman, they said, had gotten sick and had to leave early.

They all looked beleaguered and tired- their job seemed endless, thankless, and pointless.

And they were housecleaning ladies…

The woman that laughed in my face told me to put that in my story. I didn’t say I was writing one, but I guess curious white kids with cameras, disobeying social norms, can only mean so many things.

A couple years ago- before traveling, seeing, experiencing, learning- before hundreds of hours of race, class and labor issue-related podcasts, interviews, and lectures beamed into my ears while cutting thousands of pizzas for less than a penny-a-piece- I wouldn’t have given the clearing crews a second thought.

To the younger, more insecure and less informed me, these are just employees, and I am just the college student. We have socially-defined roles. I wouldn’t have wanted to rock the boat, but just skate by, socially flying under the radar.

And the terrible part about that is that it almost provides a feeling of superiority. If I want to walk across their backs, hey I paid tuition here. I’m entitled to it…

Thanks for painstakingly clearing all the sidewalks so I can take pictures..

But that’s not reality. Reality is that the system isn’t inherently just.

Reality isn’t that the market is an all-knowing, all-fairly-compensating god, or that boot strap pulling-up and real sincere hard work are all that it takes to make enough money to survive.

Reality, in this country, in 2014, is much, much more complex than that.

I would’ve wanted to do this as a story for the paper- there’s room for it, now that half my stories are cancelled. But stories need answers and statements, and most of what I have are questions, and uneasy uncertainties about labor practices and compensation at this university.

And I know it’s not just the snow-clearers. The previous Wednesday, I talked to a tired woman in one of the food service positions who said she takes 2 buses and a train to get to work, even in the snow, even on days that the university is closed.

Unlike many college students, I know  how it feels to not be able to call out of work, even in legitimate instances, because you simply can’t afford to miss it.

She also laughed when I asked about extra compensation for snow days- when all “non-essential” staff stay home, when students literally don’t have to leave their beds.

I have no idea what ODU’s lower-tier employees get paid- I hope it’s several dollars above minimum wage, but I don’t know.

I tried to look up extra compensation in the human resources handbook, but all I could find was overtime- over 40 hours a week. That same handbook specified that “regular status” employees are only guaranteed 30 hours a week- what’s essentially the low-wage industry standard.

It’s definitely an issue that I will try to find out more about. As somebody who believes in a better, more fair, less shitty world, I don’t want a degree from a university that doesn’t pay it’s workers fairly, or that exploits their economic circumstances.

For conscious students, I think this issue is just as important as campus sustainability, ethical investing, or any other environmental or social justice concern.

It is the same system after all…

At the end of the day, for the secondary education institution to be legitimate, to be ahead of the rest of the lagging country, to be progressive, to make a real positive influence on the world, or even the surrounding community, it has to be able to improve the lives of the people it employees, not just the ones that pay tuition.

On a lighter note, “snOw DU” is pretty good right?

Guns on Campus

A while ago, I wrote in this blog about the Feinstein gun bill, and gun violence in general. Although this is far from the issues I care about most, I think, ultimately, it’s an interesting subject, and the debate is really important. The first piece I wrote for the ODU student newspaper, The Mace & Crown, was a rebuttal to an opinion piece another student wrote about allowing conceal/carry on campus. Although this version is much shorter than what I had originally ended up with, I personally learned a hell of a lot researching it and I think there’s a couple good knowledge nuggets up in there. It didn’t end up in the paper, probably because it was 3 days past deadline(which I didn’t realize at the time), so I’m posting it here…

Sex, Drugs, and (Gun) Violence: Some Things Don’t Belong on Campus

             “Teenage schoolboys kill 12 schoolmates and teacher.””32 dead at Virginia university, in deadliest school shooting.” “12 killed, 58 wounded in movie theatre shooting.””12 killed, in Navy Yard shooting.” Uncertainty, danger, and tragedy plague headline after headline. Since 2009 we’ve experienced about one mass shooting a month.

Story after story- troubled (young) male amasses large amount of ammunition, easily acquires several weapons, attacks random group of unassuming innocent people. The shocks become irkingly less intense with increased frequency.

 532 people were killed last year in Chicago alone- more than troops killed in Afghanistan in the same time period… but we are made largely unaware of this fact because, I fear, our society has accepted it. The inner-cities, the impoverished urban areas- that’s where it’s “supposed to happen.” Not prestigious college campuses, or shopping malls, or elementary schools in Connecticut, or military bases in Texas.

But the reality of gun violence is bigger than headlines, more complex than one-liners, and will not condense into cheap sound bites.

The argument has been made that we should allow students to carry concealed weapons on campus, or at least keep them locked up in their dorms or vehicles.

I disagree with this sentiment. it’s too easy to get a conceal-carry permit and even easier to get a gun; and even if it were only small a minority of gun-carrying students that didn’t strictly adhere to firearm safety and storage, there’s too big of a risk for careless accidents, especially in the midst of alcohol and other substances, which are prevalent in college culture.

I’m not one to blanketly condemn others for experimenting with, or even abusing, illegal substances and/or alcohol, but we should limit our means to maim and kill ourselves as best we can in such scenarios. For many of us, this is a time of finding and establishing our limits, a time rife with uncertainty, with mistakes, and with accidents.

One of the biggest misconceptions about college campuses, is that they are inherently more prone to mass shootings, because they are “gun-free zones.” The first fallacy to point out in this myth is that gun-free zones are not more prone. According to a recent study by the group, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, in the last four years, less than a quarter of mass shootings have taken place in gun-free zones. The second myth is that shooters specifically target these places strictly because there are no guns there. The magazine, Mother Jones, points out as part of an on-going, “in depth investigation” into mass shootings, that of the 62 events over the last 30 years, “not a single case includes evidence that the killer chose to target a place because it banned guns.” In fact in the majority of cases, the killer chose the place clearly based on a connection to it- a school they were, or had once, attended, a workplace they had been wronged in, a place of worship for which they harbored deep-seated hatred, etc.

In his opinion piece, Sobey brings up the instance of the Virginia Tech tragedy as a failure of the school to allow students to defend themselves. While an armed student may have been able to take down the shooter, saving lives, in fact not one of the 62 past mass shootings were stopped this way. Even in the other three examples he cites of gun-wielding civilians stopping shootings, Sobey fails to mention that in each case the shooter was stopped by either military personnel or current or former law enforcement- not employees and run-of-the-mill students, not to mention completely untrained, incompetent, gun-wielding students.

Tim Murphy recently wrote a piece for Mother Jones titled “How I got Licensed to Carry a Concealed Gun in 32 States Without Even Trying: I was clueless, hungover, and totally worthless with a firearm. Four hours later I was officially qualified to pack heat.” The title alone gives a pretty good summary of the article, in which Murphy details exactly how easy the process is, even for someone that knows nothing about guns. He can’t even properly load bullets into the magazine and yet the conceal-carry permit he received is valid in this state, and would allow him to carry an improperly-secured, loaded, unsafety-ed, handgun onto this campus, if we decide to allow guns. If you believe this campus should give up its “gun-free”dom, perhaps your first concern should be increasing regulations and restrictions- making sure only those with extensive training are allowed to wear guns on their hips…